Has Iceland had its last whaling season?

Iceland's last whaler has no plans to stop. But as global demand slows for whale meat, his business may be doomed anyway.

“Oh my God,” Arne Feuerhahn said to his companion. Peering through binoculars from a hill overlooking a fjord north of Reykjavík, they watched as workers at the whaling station there used a steam-powered winch to haul ashore the massive body of a male fin whale. At first, they saw two harpoons piercing the whale, then they noticed two more: one in its head, two in its side, and one deep in the animal’s belly.

Feuerhahn, an activist and founder of the marine conservation nonprofit Hard to Port, says he’s observed more than 60 Icelandic fin whale landings but until that summer day had never seen a whale struck by more than two harpoons. It was “the most disturbing event” of this year’s vigil, he says. 

By the end of September, workers with Hvalur—the only Icelandic company hunting whales today—had pulled 148 fin whales from the frigid Atlantic.

Hunters are expected to kill whales with a single, well-aimed grenade-tipped harpoon that explodes seconds after impact. If more strikes are needed, reloading the gun takes six to eight minutes, so “you just realize how long this animal suffered and fought for its life,” Feuerhahn says. “With the four harpoons, that was just pure, pure torture.”

Iceland is a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) but defies the 88- nation body’s ban on commercial whaling, in force since 1986. In 2006, the country began setting quotas for whale hunts in its waters. This year, after a four-year hiatus caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hvalur’s hunt resumed, from June through September. Iceland’s current quota of 161 fin whales applies to the western region covered by the company’s license, which expires at the end of 2023.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which last assessed fin whales in 2018, lists them as vulnerable, largely because of their depletion by commercial whaling during the 20th century. Fin whales are speedy swimmers, and with the advent of steam-powered ships and explosive harpoons, they became easier to catch. Since the 1970s, however, hunting restrictions have allowed these whales and other species to rebound. The most recent estimate, in 2007, of fin whale numbers in the Iceland region was about 30,000.

Arne Feuerhahn may soon be able to pack up his binoculars.

In February, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, Iceland’s Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, told local news outlets that “there is little to justify allowing whaling” because of the controversial nature of the industry and the low demand these days for whale meat.

Her words spurred speculation that she may not renew Hvalur's license next year. In August, she also implemented a regulation requiring government inspectors to monitor hunts and whalers to make video recordings of practices aboard ships. The aim, Svavarsdóttir told National Geographic, is to “gather information effectively” to determine if animal welfare laws are being followed.

The percentage of Icelanders who oppose fin whaling has more than doubled since 2013, while the percentage of supporters has fallen more than 20 percent, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Only 2 percent of Icelanders say they eat whale meat regularly, and 84 percent had never tried it, a 2018 Gallup poll found.

International trade data show that each year from 2018 through 2020, Iceland shipped more than 2.5 million pounds of whale meat to Japan, which left the IWC in 2018. Japan spends nearly $40 million a year to subsidize its own whaling industry, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, even though a 2018 report shows that by then, demand for whale meat had dropped from more than 200,000 tons a year in the 1960s to between 4,000 and 5,000 tons. Excess meat from stockpiles is used to make pet food, the Japanese conservation group Dolphin & Whale Action Network wrote in May.

Continued whaling is “a fool's game, really, on the cost of the planet, biodiversity, the climate,” says Astrid Fuchs, policy manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a nonprofit dedicated to marine conservation and welfare.

‘A very invisible industry’

After Hard to Port released photos of the whale struck by Hvalur’s four harpoons, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority said it intended to investigate whether the company violated animal welfare laws this year. The agency did not respond to inquiries about the status of its investigation.

Regulations promulgated by the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission stipulate that whales should be killed “instantly or in a moment” by a grenade-tipped harpoon targeting their “vital vulnerability area”—heart, lungs, brain, and major blood vessels.

But whaling is “a very invisible industry,” Feuerhahn says. “It happens out at sea, and no one really knows how these animals are killed and how long they suffer.”

Killing a moving, 45-ton animal in what may be heaving seas with one harpoon strike requires extraordinary precision. Sometimes the harpoon misses the vital organs, or the grenade doesn’t detonate, or the weapon doesn’t pierce deeply enough to cause lethal damage, and more are fired as needed.

Even if the animal is motionless in the water, it may not be dead, Fuchs says. “It could just be not able to move anymore but still be [in] pain.”

Iceland’s last whaler

The face of Iceland’s moribund whaling industry is Kristján Loftsson, Hvalur’s owner, who began whaling aboard his father’s ship in 1956 when he was 13. He’s kept the company going despite increased international scrutiny and opposition, expanded whale sanctuary zones, and waning demand for whale meat. In the summer months, Hvalur sends out two whaling ships equipped with harpoon guns.

Described by activists and journalists as a real-life Captain Ahab, Loftsson acknowledged in a phone call in September that anti-whalers are always vilifying him. “I could [not] care less,” he said. “They can write whatever they like about me.”

“Whales are just another fish,” he previously told a reporter. “If they are so intelligent, why don’t they stay outside of Iceland’s territorial waters?” When a British news outlet criticized him for hunting 150 whales in 2018, he retorted that the country’s quota entitled Hvalur to 161. 

Iceland’s quota is “big enough to impact the population in the area near the Icelandic coast,” says Justin Cooke, a member of the IUCN’s cetacean specialist group who assessed fin whales in 2018. But it’s “not big enough to impact fin whales in the North Atlantic as a whole.” In the past, he says, hunting was the main threat, but today, with the greater volumes of maritime traffic, whales are killed more often by collisions with ships.

Loftsson said Hvalur’s legal take of fin whales pales in comparison to the seriousness of losses of any of the planet’s most endangered whale, the North Atlantic right whale. Fewer than 350 are alive today, migrating seasonally from Canada and New England to Florida. Since 2017, at least 54 right whales have been found dead or seriously injured, most because of entanglement in fishing gear or collisions with ships. “It's absolutely horrendous to watch it,” Loftsson said.

Regarding Svavarsdóttir’s new rule requiring government inspectors to monitor hunts, Loftsson is unfazed. “That's nothing new,” he said—observers have joined his hunts before. According to a 2015 report by the marine mammal commission, Hvalur has taken steps in recent decades to ensure that whales it targets die quickly, including converting from “highly unpredictable” black powder grenades to more powerful and precise ones using penthrite. Swedish wildlife authorities noted in 2014 that 84 percent of the 50 fin whales Hvalur hunted that year were killed instantly. (More recent information is unavailable.)

Still, Loftsson’s critics question the viability of Hvalur’s business, given the ever-shrinking markets for whale meat.

About 90 percent of the company’s meat goes to Japan, Loftsson said. When asked about Japan needing to stockpile its excess meat, he shot back, “You’re reading too much of the anti-whaling literature. It's all nonsense. … The anti-everything movement, they cook up all sorts of stories.” Of course, the Japanese are eating whale meat, he said. “Otherwise, you wouldn't send it.”

Some Icelanders see whaling is an important cultural tradition. “There's a strong, almost patriotic, sometimes even nationalistic, sentiment,” Feuerhahn says. “These people see it as their right, or as Iceland’s right, to control their waters and to control their fisheries and their whaling. So any interference from outside will be just criticized or blocked.”

“I don't think of it that way,” Loftsson said. “If a stock doesn't sustain the operation, we would not be whaling. If the stock sustains the operation, we whale. That's it.” He added, “It's just a business like anything else.”

But the future of whaling is out of Loftsson’s hands.

What comes next “is under active discussion,” says Iceland’s fisheries minister, Svandís Svavarsdóttir. “Historically and today, whaling has been a very small part of Iceland's use of marine resources and exports.” In the next year, the government will assess “the social and economic impact of whaling in Icelandic waters.” On the question of animal welfare, she says the regulation requiring video monitoring of whale hunts “will hopefully provide answers,” she says.

Will Hvalur's license be renewed next year? “That remains to be decided,” Svavarsdóttir says.

As a “forward-thinking minister,” she says she must take into account that only one company now holds a whaling permit and that Icelanders don’t have much appetite for whale meat anymore. “The practice is a part of our past rather than our future.”

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.

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